Last month, scores of public officials across Los Angeles County opened their mail to find nearly identical requests for information: Members of the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors, the Community Redevelopment Agency and Community College District Board of Trustees, the city of Long Beach and untold others were asked to produce records relating to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. It was the first blow, silently delivered, in what could be a nasty fight, of a sort that is becoming increasingly common in American and California politics.
LAANE, as it's known, is an 18-year-old advocacy organization that seeks to fashion and influence public policy relating to jobs, the environment and community development. The group, widely perceived as having a strong liberal slant, has a staff of 45 people and an annual budget of $4 million, and it is headed by a shrewd executive director, Madeline Janis. Housed in a tiny suite of offices just west of downtown (LAANE rents the space from the union UNITE-HERE), its modest quarters give little evidence of its impact, which is profound. In project after project -- from winning passage of the city's Living Wage Ordinance to revamping the way the Los Angeles port handles truck traffic to reimagining the region's approach to recycling -- LAANE has shown itself to be one of Southern California's most potent political organizations.
That has made it plenty of enemies, and one of them is now quietly but unmistakably striking back. The group that filed the requests for information under the California Public Records Act is called MB Public Affairs, a Sacramento-based operation that specializes in "opposition research," the art of ferreting out dirt on one's enemies. MB Public Affairs is headed by Mark Bogetich, a garrulous operative known to his friends as "Bogey," who has helped a number of Republican candidates neutralize their opponents. In recent years, MB Public Affairs has worked for Altria, once known as the Phillip Morris Cos.; the state Republican Party; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Meg Whitman; and California's Indian tribes, whose gambling receipts give them an intense interest in state and sometimes local politics.
When MB Public Affairs filed more than 50 public records requests for information on LAANE, it was not a casual act. It was almost certainly intended to find something damaging, and it's costing someone serious money. One operative who knows this business well estimated the price of such a digging campaign at roughly $50,000.
The requests submitted by MB Public Affairs sought calendars, details of any meetings between public officials and LAANE representatives and information about payments made to LAANE, among other things. LAANE heard about the requests from some of those who received them, and the group then made a public records request of its own in return, asking for copies of any information given to MB Public Affairs.
Those documents are trickling into LAANE, and there are, Janis acknowledges, a few potentially embarrassing but insignificant tidbits. There are, for instance, exchanges between LAANE and Councilman Eric Garcetti in which a LAANE representative urges Garcetti to support union efforts at Hollywood and Vine and at airport hotels (its critics often charge that LAANE is a tool of organized labor; Janis makes no apologies for LAANE's alliances with labor but stresses that only about 15% of its money comes from unions). Janis also is concerned that LAANE's critics may charge that it exceeds federal or local limits on lobbying, an argument she's heard before and firmly denies.
Some of the documents are just plain puzzling. In the batch that came from Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who has tangled with labor and Janis, there is a cryptic, handwritten note on the back of one page: "Janis Commissioner, unethical, illegal in tampering with local process."
What's most intriguing and unsettling at LAANE, however, is the anonymous nature of the probe.
There's a possibility that it's being bankrolled by business interests on the opposite side of an issue LAANE has taken on. Or it might be motivated by ideology, something akin to the attacks on labor in Wisconsin or on community organizing as practiced by ACORN: "Is this connected to a right-wing infrastructure ?" Janis asked rhetorically. "That's what scares me and is keeping me up at night."
I've known Janis for a decade. We haven't always agreed on everything, but she's nothing if not open; in response to my requests, she turned over volumes of material, even a private audit of her organization. LAANE's tax returns are on the Internet, as is Janis' salary and the organization's donors.
MB Public Affairs, by contrast, is much more private. Bogetich told me last week that the firm was checking the accuracy of some of LAANE's claims, possibly including its lobbying reports, and is "looking at the extent to which LAANE has influence." But he declined to answer questions about who has hired his firm or what it is charging.
Meanwhile, materials are piling up in MB Public Affairs' offices, to be released -- or not -- depending on what it finds. And Janis is left to wonder when that shoe might drop.
"We're used to a barroom fight," Janis said last week. "What they're doing is a mugging in a parking lot."